At this year’s 23rd edition of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Finnish filmmaker, Pirjo Honkasalo, was invited to make the “Top 10” selection for the festival. These were her choices—The Earth by Aleksandr Dovzhenko (Russia, 1930); The Mad Masters by Jean Rouch (France, 1955); The Earth Trembles by Luchino Visconti (Italy, 1957); Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami (Iran, 1990); Kyoto, My Mother's Place by Nagisa Oshima (Japan, 1991); Quince Tree of the Sun by Victor Erice (Spain, 1992); Brass Unbound by Johan van der Keuken (Netherlands, 1993); Tell Me What You Saw by Kiti Luostarinen (Finland, 1993); The Smiling Man by Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann (Germany, 1996); and Blockade by Sergei Loznitsa (Russia, 2005).
Perhaps, ten “exercises” one can fold into one’s film school curriculum.
All of these works were selections that resonated profoundly with Honkasalo while she was just learning the craft of filmmaking in her late teens. In the two-hour masterclass she hosted, moderated by Iikka Vehkalahti, commissioning editor of Finland’s YLE, we saw clips from these films filled with images that initially inspired Honkasalo back then—not just as an artist, but as a human being. Listening to her talk, one feels quite strongly that filmmaking was just one of the many artistic avenues she could have explored, for this 63-year-old who “feels an attraction and attachment to the logic of the dream,” and who “trusts the simple poetry of image,” can capture the revelations of deep emotional intelligence through her camera lens like very few can. I feel this might be true if she had chosen a musical instrument, a paintbrush, a quill and parchment, or what have you.
For me, watching a work by Honkasalo is a singular experience, one not easily described in words, particularly the limited language used for critiquing a work within the context of a certain cinematic style or milieu. Even though she has worked in documentary for much of the latter part of her career, her definition of the genre speaks foremost to the craft of image making: “Making the image for me is the documentary; the visual aesthetic is the essential part.” When she composes her stories, like the best minimalist musicians, it is in a very circumscribed and disciplined way. During the talk, she laughingly recalled her producer’s predicament in the initial stages of making her latest piece, Ito—Diary of an Urban Priest, about a young Buddhist man residing in Tokyo. She had come back to Finland from an extended stay with her subject in Japan, accompanied by barely any footage. Her producer pleaded: “Please start shooting something!" (Masterclass still of Honkasalo and Vehkalahti, courtesy Felix Kalkman.)
Yet what engages Honkasalo is the steady pulse, or gradual transformation, of the smaller moments, her compass set for an interior quest for the answer to something only she herself might know she is investigating. It struck me that calling this talk with this particular filmmaker a masterclass was a misnomer, of sorts. (Especially one set up as an over-lit chat show with Honkasalo and Vehkalahti sitting, seemingly, miles away from the “live audience.”) Like most master filmmakers who have worked for decades at their craft, her personal process is one fraught with more mystery than practical advice. In fact, most of the ways in which she works is completely antithetical to what any “film expert” these days might have to impart to a budding film director. But then again, not too many of us can create works of art from “fresh chaos,” particularly the interior variety which she is able to glean so eloquently from her protagonists. Providing an opportunity to choose an infinite variety of ways for a viewer to “walk through the landscapes of my films” are of greater import to her than linear story, narrative, exposition. “I trust the audience and that enables me to create a certain style. I leave space to think your own thoughts. . . . Film can talk about what we cannot talk about—there is the power of silence, the beauty of stillness.” (Still from 3 Rooms, pictured above.)
As we now all live in a world of constant “image noise” (Honkasalo’s phrase), grappling with films like hers, like Dovzhenko’s, like Visconti’s, Erice’s, et.al., is akin to learning a new language, or rather learning to re-listen, to re-look. I have seen most of her films more than once, read numerous critical essays and reviews, have listened intently to her talk about her work when I’ve had the opportunity. Still, I oftentimes feel as if I am only scratching the surface of something innately impenetrable. Yet, the inestimable rewards have been glimpses of profound beauty (Mysterion, Ito—Diary of An Urban Priest); insights into devastating psychological traumas (3 Rooms of Melancholia); the searing personal, familial and cultural pain of her 1998 drama, Fire-Eater; unflinching intimacy and a magnificent portrait of stubborn dedication in Atman. (Still from Ito, pictured above.)
Honkasalo’s films are complex, often disorienting, providing the polar opposite of any kind of conventional narrative structures we rely upon to ease our way into strange and foreign worlds. Acquiescence, a voluntary surrender, is required on the part of the viewer. These days, especially, there is something liberating in drifting in a sea of ambiguity, always off-center, a giving of oneself over to someone who, in the core of her being, believes that something exists beyond the reach of our five senses; this is what she sets out to discover anew with each new project. In essence, this is her life’s work. In return, this work is based on the director’s own erasure of self, a submission to the world around her, an obeisance to the uncontrollability of life. Her expansive interior stories are odes to the accidents of everyday experience, whether they be trivial or momentous—and who is to say which is which, she always seems to ask us. Consistently, she is able to intuitively calibrate all this through the agency of her camera, and bestow extraordinary cinematic gifts on us all. (Still from Fire-Eater, pictured above.)
Like many of the master filmmakers to whom Honkasalo paid homage in her Top 10 picks, she leaves wide swaths of room in her films for personal discovery. “If a personal self-discovery is experienced while watching a film, it’s a success.” This speaks to the generous nature of a filmmaker who is intent on communion with her audience, not the opposite intention, of which works like hers are often accused. She shares the very personal spiritual journeys she embarks upon quite generously in the language in which she is most fluid—the language of pictures. Those pictures bring collective longings, fears and questions to the forefront, prodding our collective hidden psychic terrains. In the process, she is willing to expose her own weaknesses, her own vulnerabilities, doubts, half-formed beliefs, knowing that she will likely be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Thankfully, she doesn’t really seem to care. (Still from Atman, pictured above.)
Externally, I may not be able to interpret and articulate all this very well, but I recognize the strength of an ordinary person when I see it portrayed in Honkasalo’s films. It is always a welcome sight—as is the strength of this extraordinary artist.